parties on the Narrows. In fact, staying there can be fairly quiet and
Stevensville. [September 2011]
The deeply tanned waterman, coiling line as he sat in the open cockpit of his 20-foot Wellcraft--clearly once a sport boat, now just as clearly a workboat--flashed a smile and returned my wave. But his eyes asked the obvious questions: Dang it all, am I going to have to pull another one of these weekend wackos off the mud? What on earth is this knucklehead doing so far up the creek in that big boat? Doesn't he realize how shallow it is up here?
Yes, he realized that; his depthsounder had been making that very point, in its shrill way, for the last hundred yards or so. And now the knucklehead (he being I, you may have guessed) was just looking for a good place among the moored workboats to turn around. I had been carefully motoring up Thompson Creek, a shallow but still powerboat-friendly arm of Cox Creek on the Eastern Bay side of Kent Island. My destination: Kent Manor Inn, which I'd assumed would clearly show itself on the west side of the creek. It had not. The inn itself, though a fairly large and imposing 19th-century manor house, was hidden by the trees; and because the tide was quite high (at least that part went according to plan), the inn's dock was barely visible above the water.
I figured all this out as I retraced my path downstream and approached the inn from the north, this time getting a second opinion from my iPhone and seeing more clearly where Kent Manor Drive ended--relative to where I, the blue dot, was on the creek. I chuckled to myself, thinking the blue dot should have been labeled, "You, knucklehead, are here." And that could have meant two things: not only where I was on the map, but also that I had arrived at the first and most important destination of this adventure. My goal was to see the side of Kent Island that you don't see if you stay "downtown"--at the Narrows, that bustling nexus of boats, bulkheads, boatyards, marinas, bars, restaurants, restaurants and restaurants that separates the island from Grasonville, Md., and the Eastern Shore proper. Not that there's anything wrong with a bustling nexus, mind you. I've partaken of most of the pleasures that the Narrows has to offer--meals at most of the restaurants, slips at the marinas, a dark-and-stormy too many at Red Eyes Dock Bar.
But the idea this time was to explore the not-so-beaten paths of Kent Island. And those paths, it turned out, in keeping with my modus operandi of late, happened to be bike trails--specifically, the east-west Cross Island Trail, which runs from the Bay-side beach at Terrapin Park, in the shadow of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, past the town of Stevensville, and then across to Kent Island Narrows; and the South Island Trail, which parallels Route 8, running down the southern neck of the island from Matapeake State Park to Romancoke. And by staying at the Kent Manor Inn for two nights and Bay Bridge Marina for one, I'd be bicycle striking distance from the trails' west and north termini, respectively, and from Stevensville.
Phase one of the trip, crossing from Annapolis to the back side of Kent Island, was a much rougher slog than I'd expected. I'd been overly focused on two other bugaboos--thunderstorms and shallow water--so I'd been less than attentive to the sea conditions that afternoon. From a weather standpoint, it being high season for afternoon thunderstorms, a morning crossing would have been ideal. But it would've been the worst time to go in terms of tide. And, given the skinny water I was heading into on Thompson Creek, I chose the latter of the devils. That is, I'd rather risk getting rained on than running aground. In those terms alone, the gamble paid off. I neither got rained on nor ran aground, though I certainly flirted with the latter by overshooting the inn's dock. Conditions on the upper Bay that afternoon, though, were not particularly civilized--with three- and four-foot crosswise seas pummeling me all the way from the mouth of the Severn to Bloody Point. On the upside, these are the conditions that an Albin 28 is made for. I wouldn't have dreamed of crossing on a day like this in one of the Chesapeake Boating Club's smaller boats (and they'd have likely forbidden it). But the Albin? Pfft! Not a problem. Bouncy, yes. Noisy, sure. Rollercoaster, oh yeah. But all of it very much in stride--and all at the boat's seemingly unshakable cruising speed of 12 to 13 knots.
Things calmed down considerably, of course, as soon as I turned the corner into Eastern Bay, and by the time I'd reached the wide shared mouth of Cox and Shipping creeks, a couple of miles above Romancoke, things had gotten downright civilized--serene even, although the bruise-colored western sky concerned me a little. Maybe that's what had me distracted enough to putter right past the Kent Manor Inn's dock without realizing it. After the careful U turn upstream, I worked my way back to what was, in the satellite view of my iPhone's Google map, clearly the inn property--an enormous house, a parking lot and a pool at the end of Kent Manor Drive, with a sizable L dock reaching about 100 feet into the creek. But from the creek it was all easy to miss. The house is mostly obscured by trees, and the dock, at this hour and on this day, was next to invisible, being both unoccupied and nearly submerged in the unusually high water. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the half-dozen plastic Adirondack chairs bolted to the dock's outer arm, seemingly perched on the water itself, I might have missed it on the second pass too. But I didn't, and soon I was tying up at the outside corner of the L . . . and explaining myself to a gregarious teenager named A.J. Within minutes of my landing, the young man had come sauntering down the dock, asking cheerfully if I was taking shelter there because of the looming storm. "No," I said, "Actually, I'm staying here tonight, and tomorrow night. At the inn." At which point, since I still couldn't actually see an inn, it occurred to me that I still might not have found it. "This is the Kent Manor Inn, right?" I asked. "I mean, this is their dock?"
"Yessir, it is." A.J. said, "We saw you coming in, and my dad said I should come down and see if everything was alright. We thought maybe you were coming in because of the storm. . . . We live right over there," he said, pointing to a house 100 yards away, just upstream from the dock. "My dad works for the inn, he does the maintenance. My mom works there too." All this was volunteered, and quickly followed by lots of questions about the boat. "That'd be a great boat for fishing!" he said, eyeing the open cockpit. "Do you take it out fishing?" No, I told him, mostly just cruising and exploring, not a lot of fishing. "You don't?" he asked incredulously. "Man, I would if I had a boat like that. I'd be fishing every day!"
"Yeah, I said. I have friends who say the same thing. They say it's a waste of a perfectly good fishing boat."
"Oh, no, I didn't mean that!" A.J. backpedaled. "I like to just be out on a boat too! Just be out there on the water. That's cool, just being out there, doing . . . you know, whatever." From the way he said "out there on the water," with something approaching reverence, it was clear to me he had a good bit of Thompson Creek water in his veins. He was a waterman waiting to happen, I thought--somewhat ruefully, of course, because nowadays that's not the most promising career path for A.J.
After A.J. said good-bye and headed back to his house, I finished securing the boat, then wrestled my bike out of the cockpit and onto the dock. (Note to self: For Pete's sake, maybe you should get a lighter bike for these purposes? One of these days you're going to pop a back muscle heaving around this heavy, fat-tire cruiser.) Walking the bike off the dock, past a gazebo and across a footbridge traversing a narrow finger of marsh, jammed tight with phragmites, I got my first good look at the inn. It's a big old manor house, built around 1820, nestled in among mature trees and enormous shrubs and situated sidelong to the creek. Its two-story open-air front porch, running the width of the house, looks north across a circle drive. In the back, a long glassed-in porch and sprawling multi-level deck face south, looking out on a wide sweep of lawn, the footbridge, a pool and a large single-story octagonal outbuilding for large-group meetings, parties and receptions. Weddings and conferences are the name of the game here--the former accounting for most of the weekend activity and the latter for the weekdays. Indeed, my original plan had been to stay here on a Friday and Saturday, but with a wedding booked for that weekend, there were no guest rooms available for Saturday. Or the next Saturday. Or the next or the next. But no problem; Thursday and Friday worked too.
The first order of business, once I'd found a place to lock up my bike, was to check in--though here the process has a more personal flavor to it than the term "check in" implies. Inn manager Amy Fowler, the very person I'd spoken with when I called a week earlier to reserve the room, invited me to have a seat at her desk while she checked me in, found a room key for me and gave me the rundown. That included a phone number to call (A.J.'s parents, it turned out) if I needed any after-hours assistance. That alone--that there is an "after hours"--tells you something about the place. With 24 guest rooms and wedding and conference facilities, it's hardly a bed-and-breakfast. But it's not a hotel either. I like that.
Given the long day and the rough ride across the Bay, I was tempted to just take a shower and spend the rest of the evening in my very large and very English room with a book in my lap and my iPod on shuffle. But I was also hungry, so I decided to first hop on the bike and go foraging for dinner--thinking, incorrectly, that the inn's restaurant was open only for brunch on Sundays. It is, in fact, open from Thursday through Sunday, for lunch and dinner, plus Sunday brunch. Silly me. If only I could read.
So off I went on the bike, down the long, bending, tree-lined drive, then right on Route 8, then right again just shy of Route 50, along the access road that leads to past a K-Mart and then to Thompson Creek shopping center. This, I knew from experience (I used to live out this way), would be my prime foraging ground. I wasn't sure what I wanted--just something interesting, yet reasonably healthful. That latter bit, by my definition, ruled out some of the obvious choices: pizza, KFC, pizza, Mexican, Cracker Barrel. That left only a bar and grill, a sushi place, a Food Lion and . . . wait, sushi? Here? On Kent Island? Yes, my eyes had not deceived me. Right there, just a few doors down from the Food Lion, was Ichiban Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar. Culinary quandary averted. Cucumber roll. Oshinko roll. California roll. Me happy. Indeed I was so happy about this unexpected turn of events that I didn't even mind getting rained on, torrentially, on the ride back to the Kent Manor Inn. It helped prepare me for the equally torrential shower I took back at the room.
The next morning I happily frittered away a few hours with coffee and scones and fresh fruit on the inn's broad front porch, waiting for the spitty weather to clear. It finally did, around noon, at which point I unlocked the bike and fired up the iPhone GPS. In addition to its built-in GPS, the phone was now loaded with an application called Trails, which, like some marine navigation apps, would record my track that day. This was hardly vital to the day's mission--a round trip to Kent Narrows and back on the east-west Cross Island Trail--but I liked the idea of having "data" from the trip: total mileage, average speed, elevation changes, and of course the track itself, represented by a bright red line on the map. I had imagined myself back at the inn that night, sitting on the porch, sipping scotch and reviewing the day's adventure. This, however, will be the last you hear of this technological experiment, because, like all navigation apps, this one is fraught with opportunities for user error--and a week or so later I found one of those opportunities and took full advantage of it. That is, I deleted the entire day's track with one ill-advised tap of the no, don't save button, followed by another ill-advised tap of the yes, i'm sure button. I also discovered that phone's battery is not up to an entire day's worth of unplugged GPS tracking. Unlike the car and boat, the bike has no 12-volt outlet to help keep the damn thing charged up. . . . But I've let all that that go, because, after all, this is about boating and biking, not about the shortcomings of shirt-pocket technology.
Tim, do you hear me? Let. It. Go.
If you're the least bit familiar with Route 50 on Kent Island, you know it's not especially pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly, least of all here at the eastern foot of the Bay Bridge. So the first part of the day's trek, crossing said highway by way of the Route 8 overpass, was far and away the most dangerous and nerve-wracking 10 minutes of the day. Once north of 50, though, it's only a quarter mile to the first traffic light, where you may turn right on to Main Street, into Stevensville proper, or left on Skipjack Parkway, then through Chesapeake Business Park, to find the west end of the Cross Island Trail. On this end, it is not at all linear; it is in fact the meandering trail system for Terrapin Beach Park (owned by Queen Anne's County), which is nestled against the Bay immediately north of the Bay Bridge, with a thin half-mile strip of sand beach (a very popular area de pesca and picnic spot for Latino families) and 276 acres of marsh, woods, meadows and former farmland.
After exploring the park trails for a couple of hours, I was ready to head east. But rather than go straight out the trail, I went back through the business park to Route 8--for a visit to Stevensville, a town that had never been more to me than a name on a highway sign. As many times as I've zoomed through here on Route 50, I've never seen the town itself, and never realized how old and appealing and, well, town-like it is. From the light at Route 8, it's just a quarter-mile or so to the center of town, or at least what feels like the center of town, anyway: the skewed intersection of East Main Street, Cockey Lane and Love Point Road. Here you find the greatest concentration of the town's historic buildings: namely, a beautiful old 1902 bank building, a tiny mid-19th-century post office (headquarters of the Kent Island Heritage Society), an even tinier 1902 railroad passenger depot, tucked away behind an artfully shabby antiques store kept company by an old wood-planked B&O Railroad caboose, and the post-and-plank Cray House, built in 1809 by a ship's carpenter.
There's also an attractive cluster of genteel businesses here--the aforementioned antiques store, called Paris Grey Cottage, artists' studios and galleries, a gourmet pastry shop called Peace of Cake, and, occupying a massive and beautiful red-brick building that clearly had once been a church, Ye Olde Church House Antiques. Presiding quietly and confidently over all this at the northwest corner of the intersection, across from the old post office, is the Rustico Restaurant and Wine Bar. It being early afternoon and there being plenty of daylight left for my trip to the Narrows and back, I decided to give it a try--and I'm very glad I did. Under the care of a sweet and attentive young waitress named Mary, I had a cup of cream of crab soup (perfect touch of sherry), an appetizer of pomodori Verdi (fried green tomatoes topped with marinara and Buffalo mozzarella) and a house salad with shrimp. And a lovely glass of Tuscan chianti, Castello Banfi to be exact.
But now it was time to test a shortcut I had discovered on the map that morning. It appeared that if I went a few blocks north on Love Point Road (a mini 19th-century architecture tour in its own right), turned right on Lowery Road then left on State Street, I would find, at the very end of State Street, a cut-through to the bike trail. And sure enough, there it was. This is the beginning of the trail's best part, actually, a long and mostly uninterrupted three miles from Stevensville to Piney Creek, just west of the Narrows. And the best of the best is the first (westernmost) mile or so--a long, straight stretch of pavement, easily 10 feet wide and deeply shaded inside a 150-wide strip of mature woods. This is also the part that is so obviously, given its straightness and flat grade, a converted rail bed--the same rail bed, in fact '(that of the Queen Anne's Railroad) that ran to the tiny depot in Stevensville. From there the rail line turned north, ending at the long-gone Love Point ferry landing.
The other end of the Queen Anne's line, I'd read somewhere, was Lewes, Del., and as I pedaled along this shady straightaway, across a lovely wooden bridge at Cox Creek and then back into the woods again, I couldn't help but think how great it would be if the bike path too went all the way to Lewes. . . .
Or, I reconsidered a bit later as the bike's seat began to feel less and less hospitable, maybe that wouldn't be so great on this bike. Today I was relearning what I'd learned the previous summer in hilly Occoquan, Va.--that a beach cruiser like this, with its fat tires, heavy frame, commodious seat and three paltry gears, is not ideal for either long distances or hilly terrain. For the first mile or so it's great, but after that it gets more and more like pedaling a Barcalounger.
This increasingly occupied my thoughts as I approached the east end of the trail, skirting Route 50, and then plunging into another woodsy mile before Piney Creek. It wasn't that I was sore or fatigued. Not yet. It was just that I knew that every foot I traveled in that direction was a foot I'd have to travel to get back to the other end of the island. But, fiddledy-dee, I told myself, I'll worry about that later, after a nice dinner at the relatively new Bridges Restaurant, one the few establishments on the Narrows that I had not yet sampled.
That last woodsy bit of trail emerges from the trees at the foot of another wooden bridge, this one over Piney Creek, and now closer than ever to Route 50--indeed, barely than 100 feet from the westbound lanes. There the trail loses its secluded feel altogether, though it remains civilized and well segregated from the car traffic. At the east end of the defunct outlet shopping center, the trail turns left down Piney Narrows Road, ending where the road ends, at the county's Chesapeake Exploration Center. But it also continues straight, past Piney Narrows Road, under the highway at the foot of the new Kent Narrows bridge and, finally, across the Narrows on the old bridge. This last bit, across the bridge, isn't as perilous as it may sound to anyone who's driven it; indeed, it's reasonably safe, thanks to a well marked bike lane alongside the single westbound car lane.
I had a splendid meal at Bridges Restaurant--and not only because I was in a seat that, unlike the one I'd been on much of the day, was flat and considerably wider than my tush. That had something to do with it, but so did the perfect summer temperature (about 80 degrees and low humidity), and the tremendous 180-degree view of the Narrows, and the beautiful pan-seared crabcake, served with slabs of fried green tomato and fresh asparagus. I'd have loved to linger here longer, but, according to my iPhone's weather app, that would be a mistake, unless I wanted to get caught in the line of thunderstorms that was now moving through Frederick. Speaking of the iPhone, this was also the one and only time I saw the red line that I'd etched on the map with my Trails program. A week later, when I went to have another look, I somehow deleted it, and--No, never mind, I said I wouldn't mention that again.
There's no need to go into great detail about the return trip, except to say it was very much like eastbound trip, only backwards, and that I beat the thunderstorm to Kent Manor Inn, and that somewhere along the way I went from thinking about getting a more suitable long-distance bike to actually resolving to do so.
Next morning, after a glorious night's sleep in my very large bed in my very english Room, I woke to a methodical on-again-off-again clanking sound. Five or six steady clanks, then 15 seconds of silence, then five or six steady clanks, then silence, then the clanks again. It was, it turned out, a tent crew; specifically, it was a beefy young man with a sledge hammer, driving stakes for the giant white tent that already been unrolled and placed on the inn's back lawn. Ah, yes, I remembered, it's somebody's wedding day--and time for me to stow my bags and bike on the boat and head around to the other side the island. After coffee and scones again on the porch--this time the back porch so I could watch them finish putting up the tent (it's remarkable how fast they do it)--I did just that.
Soon I was heading down Thompson Creek, then Cox Creek, and into Eastern Bay. Today's mission: around Bloody Point and up the west side of the island to the Bay Bridge marina, then hop on the bike again and check out out the South Island Trail. Just thinking about it made my tookus throb a bit, but I was determined to finish what I'd started.
Finding my way to E dock at the Bay Bridge Marina, was a snap, compared to Thursday's adventure. There was no chance of overshooting it, for starters, because . . . well, because I simply couldn't go much farther. Slip E-14 was just about as far into the northeast corner of the marina as one could get--a convenient spot indeed, in terms of proximity to both the showers and the road leading out of the marina. Later this evening, I would very much appreciate those things; the showers perhaps most of all.
The previous day's ride, by my low-tech reckoning, had been 10 or 12 miles. This afternoon's ride, to Romancoke and back, would be more like 16 miles. And, it turned out, 16 far less interesting miles than those of the Cross Island Trail. The trail begins in earnest at Matapeake State Park--much of which, until 1952 had been Kent Island terminal of the long-running Matapeake-Sandy Point Ferry, made obsolete that same year by the spanking-new Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The site is now shared by the Maryland Marine Police Academy and the state park--which is in fact leased by Queen Anne's County and comprises a strip of sandy beach, a fishing pier and the renovated the ferry terminal building, now called the Matapeake Clubhouse. The park grounds hold yet another fascinating study in obsolescence: the vast and spooky remains of what must be the largest failure (speaking only literally) of Bay environmental research: the Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model. Built in the 1970s, this enormous concrete scale model of the Chesapeake never had a chance to prove itself; because of advances in computer modeling, it was obsolete before it was even finished. And all that remains of the sprawling site is the massive steel shed, nearly 300 yards long, that was built to house it, and the nearly mile-long road around it, now being reclaimed by weeds and scrub.
All this, I'm sorry to report, turned out to be the most interesting part of the South Island Trail experience. Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps my opinion is more than a little colored by pain. Perhaps you shouldn't trust the word of someone who that day decided to name is bicycle Golgotha--a word that comes from the hill in Jerusalem where Christ was crucified, a word that is now a common noun meaning "place of great suffering, torment or martyrdom." I won't go so far as to call myself a martyr, but oh there was suffering and torment that day. And that may have something to do with my dim view of the South Island Trail. That, and how enjoyable can a bike trail be if it's never more than 50 feet from a very busy 50-mph road?
Oh, and one more thing: How enjoyable can a bike trail be if, for many long stretches of it, there are stop signs every 100 feet or so telling bikers not only to stop, but to dismount? Seriously. Under the stop sign it says bikers dismount. The Cross Island Trail also had some of these obnoxious signs, but not nearly as many the southern trail--where the they marked not only every crossroad but every driveway. There had to be fifty of them. A simple yield I could live with, or caution, or even be very, very careful crossing this driveway . . . but dismount? No, call me a scofflaw, but that's just silly. A road, yes; a driveway, no.
So, given all that, is it any wonder I was muttering blue oaths under my breath for pretty much the entire eight-mile return trip, from Romancoke to the marina--a trip that, somehow, was just as predominantly uphill as it had been in the opposite direction? 'Or that I slept the sleep of the righteous, and the half-dead, that night in the Albin's V-berth? Or that I was happy to stand at the helm all the way across the Bay the next day, back to Back Creek? Or that within a week I'd become the proud owner of a much lighter, much more distance-friendly bicycle?
Oh, and how much for those padded shorts, sir?